"I could'a been a contender!"
On swimming and possibility, the Summer Olympics and good books about sports
I have this story I like to tell about the summer before fourth grade—my first summer living in the United States, as it happens—when the daycare where I spent most of every day started taking all the kids to a nearby YMCA for swimming lessons. I was one of the oldest kids in the cohort and already knew how to swim, so one of the lifeguards took it upon himself to teach me all the Olympic strokes (freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly) while the rest of the kids were blowing bubbles in the shallow end. By the time summer was over, I had them all down, and mom was told she should enroll me in a serious training program because I showed promise. She shrugged off the suggestion at the time, but years later, I heard her mention it to someone in casual conversation. I don’t remember wishing she’d done differently—only that it was a cool thing to know about myself: that someone thought I was exceptionally good at something. From that point on, I took over the telling of it, a story of how once upon a time, I might have gone to the Olympics.
I loved swimming as a kid, and I can still do a decent dolphin kick. Having never done it competitively, though, the possibility can exist in my mind perfectly pristine, untested by the reality of 5 a.m. practices, years of endless laps, likely injuries and money to pay for it all that my single mother didn’t have. As a parent now, I also appreciate the choice to let your kid be a kid and continue to have fun doing something she loves instead of turning it into her job. The Olympic Games themselves have grown problematic over the years for a lot of complicated reasons, and don’t get me started on the professionalization of children’s activities.
All this said, so far as what ifs go, it’s a fun one to think about. Swimming remains something I enjoy both for fun and for exercise. It’s my favorite sport to watch in the Olympics, and this summer was no exception. No Michael Phelps? No problem.
A gold medalist from Alaska, a state with only one Olympic-length pool? Yes.
Another gold medalist winning the third gold medal EVER from lane eight? Yes.
The first-ever mixed gender relays? Yes, yes, yes.
This summer, it was also especially fun watching my daughters practice their swimming. The 6-year-old, who has never taken consistent lessons, somehow managed to teach herself how to hold her breath underwater as well as her own version of freestyle just by watching her friends and her older sister. My older daughter is 9, which is the age I was that fateful summer I could have started down my path as an Olympian. This was her second summer in a row without formal instruction, but we practiced freestyle and breaststroke together, and she took her mother’s coaching like a champ. By August, she was confident enough to take her first ever swim test: one lap in the 25-meter pool at the Old Town Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Her prize? A yellow wristband that signifies permission to swim in the deep end, in all its 9-foot depth glory. She chose breaststroke for her test lap and did it beautifully. I was proud of her, but not prouder than she was of herself. No Olympic dreams necessary.
September Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory - Like Guillory’s first book, The Wedding Date, this story doesn’t dig deep and doesn’t pretend it’s going anywhere except for where you know it’s going. But it’s a fun light read with some fun characters and some rom-com clichés flipped on their heads. Guillory’s sole aim is clearly to entertain and that she does.
Currently on my night stand
These are books about women, the violence they face and how it shapes them. I did not choose two books about such a hard subject intentionally but was drawn in for similar reasons. Sorrowland is a fantasy story, whereas Something Wild is steeped in the banalities of real life. Both are haunting.
What the kids are reading these days
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt - The 9-year-old chose this one on her first trip to the school library this year. It’s about a girl who has trouble reading and fitting in. I haven’t read it, but I am intrigued because the kiddo, who I caught trying to read while brushing her teeth, can’t seem to put it down.
The Magic in the Mirror (Thea Stilton Special Edition #9) - Both my girls are fans of Thea Stilton books, and the 6-year-old picked this one on our last trip to our neighborhood bookstore. The adventures of the Thea Sisters are a mix of mystery, adventure, girl power and mouse puns—not earthshaking kids lit but entertaining to read aloud.
The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood by Julian Rubinstein - This NPR interview with the author will explain the background of this book better than I could. I can’t wait to dig into it and into the history of a Denver neighborhood not too far from where I live now.
The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One) by Rick Riordan - This series has been in the back of my mind to read for a while. I’ve heard great things about it even though it was eclipsed by Harry Potter in terms of popularity (mostly because the movie adaptation wasn’t nearly as successful). What finally prompted me to buy it was the 9-year-old saying that she wanted to read it but was afraid it was only about monsters. Mom is taking one for the team and getting the lay of the land first.
Inspired by the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, here are three medal-worthy reads about Olympic sports.
Bronze medalist: How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
2021 Olympic Champions: Brazil (men), and Canada (women)
I read this book more than a decade ago, so I can’t speak to how well it holds up, but it was great at the time and I said as much in a post on my old blog about the power of soccer to unify people:
Using everything from local to international leagues, Foer looks at how certain squads are microcosms that illustrate the defining political questions of our time. The trope holds up in some cases better than others, but the underlying truth is that no sport, no social gathering place, figurative or otherwise, has the ability to affect the power structures that govern the world like soccer. That may not seem plausible to Americans because no sport played in the U.S., certainly not soccer, is capable of bridging the painfully entrenched lines in the sand between Rush Limbaugh’s right wing and Rachel Maddow’s left.
Soccer has grown in considerable popularity in the United States since Foer first published this book, and there is probably more that may be said about its global impact—political and otherwise—in the last ten years, especially as it pertains to race relations and how treatment of black players continues to be an issue that the sport’s ruling bodies haven’t dealt with properly. I’ll take recommendations on more recent books on futból if you have them, reader, but if you’re new to the sport, this one is not a bad place to start.
Silver medalist: Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
2021 Olympic Champions: A lot of them because swimming is divided into four disciplines, and each has races of multiple lengths, on top of which, there are relays. This book is about distance swimming, so I’ll note that Katie Ledecky, one of the best swimmers of all time, won the first-ever women’s 1500-meter freestyle race in the Olympics.
I read this memoir also over a decade ago but still remember and think about it to this day. Cox was an open water swimmer who held records related to crossing the Catalina Island channel in California, the English channel and, most famously, the Bering Strait. She also actually swam in Antartica, and tells her story in engaging, thoughtful prose.
Gold Medalist and Olympic Champion: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Sport: Running/Track and Field
2021 Olympic Champions: Again, a lot of them because track involves running races as brief as 10 seconds and as long as two hours.
This book is about ultra-marathoning, which takes the most mythologized Olympic event—the marathon—and multiplies it by a factor of ten. Here’s what I wrote about the book when I read it in 2018:
This book mixes the best of sportswriting, science writing, long-form interview, and personal memoir, and the result is one long love letter to the human body and the extremes—emotional and physical—of which it is capable. I am a runner and have been since I was 15. Actually, that's not quite right. Now that I've read this book, I can and will affirm that I have been since I was born. The title isn't just about the people who are nuts enough to strap on some shoes (or not) and go run 100 miles. It's about humans and our evolutionary development. It's also about the people who are nuts enough to do it for 100 miles and those who have perfected that practice over generations or merely their own lifetimes. It's about the author's own struggles with running and about a race this crazy guy he met concocted in the deadly trails of Mexico's Copper Canyon. I'm pretty sure anyone with an interest in good writing would love this book—McDougall spins an excellent yarn—but I honestly can't give an unbiased assessment. This book spoke to me, as a runner. I laughed. I cried. I felt moved to do the thing my 40-year-old body sometimes makes me think I should stop doing. Basically, I loved it.
Programming note: I meant to end the summer hiatus in August, rather than September, but you know . . . life! I’m making a concerted effort not to take on too much at the moment, so I’m going to be posting once per month, instead of every two weeks. If you have suggestions on topics or books I should cover, please let me know in the comments!
I flirted with joining my high school swim team, but for reasons that escape me now, I chose basketball as my winter sport, and by the time I ended up on the wrong end of tryouts in 11th grade, it seemed too late to switch to swimming.
Art that asks questions about how women’s bodies are subjugated and controlled is always relevant. We live in a world in which the fight over our bodies is never-ending, and we should never let our guard up.
Fish in a Tree is a beautiful book - glad your daughter is enjoying it! The Lightning Thief is tons of fun, too (but does have some scary monsters right off the bat). I appreciated the spin off the traditional mythology, particularly the main character's dyslexia and differences presented as some of his greatest (unknown/unharnessed) strengths. But man, the movie was awful - such a shame! I love what Riordan is doing with his publishing power to give own-voice authors the chance to tell lesser known mythologies around the world, too (https://rickriordan.com/rick-riordan-presents/).